February 19, 2009 | By Marcia Hofmann

Facebook Battle Ends in Major Victory for Users, But the War Continues

A David and Goliath-type battle erupted this weekend when the public realized that Facebook had changed the rules governing their use of the popular social networking site. In the end, the users prevailed in a victory that reflects the power of social networking as a tool for change.

The controversy began on Sunday, when the blog Consumerist pointed out that Facebook's terms of use, which had permitted users to remove their content from the site at any time, had been modified to give Facebook the right to use content indefinitely, subject to privacy settings.

The public reaction was swift and brutal. Within two days, more than 100,000 Facebook users organized and joined groups such as People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS), FACEBOOK OWNS YOU: Protest the New Changes to the TOS!, and Those against Facebook's new TOS!. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg backpedaled, assuring users on Monday that "we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want." On Tuesday, amid the community revolt, Facebook backed down and announced that it would restore the former terms while it worked through the concerns users had raised. The service also created a group, Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, for users to give input on what the terms of use should say. Zuckerberg underscored the importance of the community's participation in developing better terms of use:

More than 175 million people use Facebook. If it were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world. Our terms aren't just a document that protect our rights; it's the governing document for how the service is used by everyone across the world. Given its importance, we need to make sure the terms reflect the principles and values of the people using the service.

Facebook's reaction is a tremendous victory for its users. In the past, it often fell to government regulators or the courts to rein in overly ambitious companies that wanted to take undue advantage of information provided by users and visitors. But the Facebook saga fulfills the promise of the internet: we can harness the power of individuals to fight any potential abuse in a networked community.

The Facebook backlash also shows that online companies ignore the phenomenon of user empowerment at their own peril. Many experts bemoan the "fact" that people increasingly don't care about privacy or their relationship to companies that host their information. Yet these same people organized and revolted on a massive scale -- using Facebook itself -- to force the online giant to restore greater autonomy to users. This week's controversy and past protests about Facebook features like Beacon show that users can and will demand control over their personal information, content and relationships -- and that lines exist that users will not permit companies to cross.

The success of the Facebook rebellion is particularly heartening at a time when the law is ill-equipped to deal with the unique challenges posed by social networking sites. Who "owns" the photos uploaded to a digital photo album, or a comment posted by one user on someone else's Wall? What do we do when somebody uses Facebook as a tool to attack another? How do we make sure that our privacy is respected when our personal information is in others' hands? These are just a few of the important questions that remain unresolved in the context of Facebook. The legal murkiness makes it all the more important that users have a powerful, effective way to defend their own interests.

Facebook users have won this battle, but the war for control of user information isn't over. Advocates, regulators, attorneys and other professionals will continue to have a role in defending digital rights, but the users of online tools are themselves a rising force to be reckoned with as the power of social networking grows.


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